Monday, 10 May 2021

CD Review - May 2021

John Mayer (1929-2004) was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to an Anglo-Indian father and Tamil mother. He moved to London in 1952 with a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and worked as a violinist and composer, then co-founded the Indo-Jazz Fusions quintet in the sixties, before teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire, where he established the BMus in Indian Music. His son, Jonathan Mayer (b.1975) started on the violin, but then from the age of 16 he trained as a sitar player, and he now composes and performs. On this disc, there are works composed by father and son, two each, and Jonathan performs sitar on his own compositions, as well as playing tanpura (like a fretless sitar, providing a harmonic drone) on his father’s Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1978. The violinist here is Sasha Rozhdestvensky, and he shows phenomenal technical dexterity, particularly in the perpetual motion and breathless energy of the concerto’s second movement. The opening movement, Alap, has a pulsing orchestral background, out of which the violin emerges in winding chromatic lines, up and down. The tanpura shimmers in the background of the third movement Raga, and its improvisatory cadenza for the violin is full of birdlike fluttering. The fourth movement has dark brass and sparse woodwind chords, with lyrical moments in the violin’s response, before the final movement Gat drives with jagged rhythms to an insistent conclusion. John Mayer’s other composition here is the Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra, from 1975. Across its four movements, Mayer often pits orchestral sections – strings, woodwind, percussion against each other in conversation, occasionally bringing them together. The music is quite episodic, and occasionally lacks continuity, but there are imaginative effects, such as the lively coda of the first movement, and the racing strings Scherzo and spiky woodwind Trio of the third movement. The second movement is the strongest, with its drone background and the winding melody emerging from the strings, before the woodwind take over, and a solo cello and cor anglais conclude with a heartfelt lament. Jonathan Mayer’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 begins with an extended solo for the instrument, with initial unison string responses developing into a more rhythmic, almost jazzy section. The central cadenza is hypnotic, and is followed by a surging orchestral response. The second movement focuses on repeated patterns, initially a four-note figure on the sitar, with thrumming strings beneath, whereas the third movement has a driving 7 beat rhythm in a kind of offbeat march, with a whiff of Hans Zimmer’s film music. It is the most western harmonically, and the sitar gets livelier and more elaborate as the movement builds, although the ultimate conclusion is inconclusive. Jonathan Mayer’s other work here, the single movement Pranam, begins with the sitar alone, with the orchestra joining as the sitar settles into a melodic pattern. The tabla joins (here played by Shahbaz Hussain), and rhythmic interest in the orchestra grows. Mayer builds layers of texture in the orchestra, then after a hiatus, the sitar is left keening above dark, low strings, before the violins emerge with a winding upward line. Once again, the tabla helps drive the momentum, and faster rhythmic patterns crescendo, almost burying the sitar, the woodblock adding further driving repetition to an ending reminiscent of John Adams. Debashish Chaudhuri conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in strong performances of these fascinating works.

Various. 2020. John Mayer/Jonathan Mayer - Concertos. Sasha Rozhdestvensky, Jonathan Mayer, Shahbaz Hussain, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Debashish Chaudhuri. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR88.

(An edited version of this review first appeared in Scene, May 2021)


 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Spring has Sprung: a taste of live concerts to come from Paul McCreesh and the RNS

Paul McCreesh (conductor)

7.30pm Friday 30 April 2021
Streamed live at sagegateshead.com

Sage One, Gateshead




Frederick Delius (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Thea Musgrave (b.1928) (arr. by Martyn Brabbins (b.1959)): Green

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38, 'Spring'

Maria Włoszczowska
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
Delius:
'The clarinet’s cuckoo was not overstated, emerging naturally from the textures, and the string sound was warm without excess weight'.

Musgrave:
'From a glassy, atmospheric opening to the frenzied intense climax, the RNS string players were in their element, with strong solo work and powerful contrasts between the lyrical and the harsher effects'.

Vaughan Williams:
'Włoszczowska’s playing ... was easy and relaxed, and the winding figures rising to the first high melodic statement were natural and effortless, with a singing, pure tone at the top'.

Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
Schumann:
'The Finale was the strongest movement here, with dancing energy, (and) precise articulation and detail from the strings'.

'“Spring in full bloom” ..., with bright brass and an emphatic finish'.   

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.


Friday, 9 April 2021

CD Reviews - April 2021

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) originally composed Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) for string sextet, but he later orchestrated the work, and it has become one of his most performed works.  Unlike his later music, it is tonal, although highly chromatic, with a late Romantic stamp, and a strong Wagnerian flavour. The poem by Dehmel which inspired the work is about a woman who walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man.  Her lover ultimately forgives her, and the intensity of their love and the beauty of the moonlight brings them together.  On this latest recording, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have cleverly explored some lesser-known works from the same period, notably Oskar Fried’s (1871-1941) setting of Verklärte Nacht, Op. 9, for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra (with Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton the soloists here). Fried’s setting is lush and atmospheric, with warm narrative duets contrasting with more emotionally charged solos from both characters. Rice and Skelton are beautifully matched, and Skelton shimmers at the top of his range on ‘Glanz’ (glow). It is perhaps a little more obvious than Schoenberg’s intense instrumental interpretation, which here receives a wonderfully mysterious and atmospheric reading, contrasting the full weight of strings at the climactic moment, with an incredibly light touch for the lilting night music and glassy solos. The disc begins with another surprise – Fieber (Fever) by Franz Lehár (1870-1948), for tenor and orchestra. This is a highly episodic piece – perhaps understandable when expressing the delirium of an injured soldier in hospital, flitting between calling for the nurse, thinking of his girlfriend, remembering battle and even an image of his mother, before finally succumbing to death. Skelton is bold and emphatic, yet also captures the sense of confusion and anguish here. We get fragments of romantic waltzes, and even a snippet of the Radetzky March, all lusciously orchestrated. Skelton returns in the four Lieder des Abschieds, Op. 14 (Songs of Farewell) by Erich Korngold (1897-1957). Full of yearning, with texts including ‘Sterbelied’ (Upon Dying), a German translation of a Christina Rossetti poem, the songs employ frequent yearning vocal leaps, and Skelton’s placing is impeccably tender. The second song is more urgent and dramatic, whilst the third and fourth have more of a gentle rocking feel. Korngold’s orchestration is rich and sumptuous, and here as throughout, Gardner and the BBCSO are on top form.  

Various, 2021. Verklärte Nacht: Schoenberg, Fried, Lehar, Korngold. Christine Rice, Stuart Skelton, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos. CHSA 5243.

Greek-born pianist Alexandra Papastefanou studied in Moscow, Budapest and the US, and has had lesson from Alfred Brendel. She has performed all of Bach’s keyboard works, and to date, her recordings have also focussed on Bach, as well as her own compositions. Now she turns to Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and in a two disc set, she covers all the works for piano written in 1839. The following year, 1940, is known as his ‘Year of Song’, in which he wrote over 160 vocal works, including 135 solo songs. It was also the year he finally married Clara, after the extended and embittered battles with her father. Whilst not as prolific a year, 1839 did generate a considerable number of works for the piano, and in many ways, they reflect the turbulent time of that year before he was finally able to marry the love of his life. Papastefanou has coined the term ‘Year of Piano’ for her survey of this output. Papastefanou plays with clarity and avoids overindulgence in the more romantic, expressive passages. So the Humoreske, Op. 20 is suitably boisterous and playful to begin with, yet the stuttering rhythms of the second section have a subtle unease, followed by darker, expressive then tender and lilting third and fourth sections. Schumann said when writing this ‘I have been sitting at the piano, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once’, and there are certainly a lot of moods to capture here. The same might be said of the 4 Nachstücke, Op. 23, with a slightly pacy, agitated funeral procession, and swirling, darkly turbulent night revelry. Papastefanou takes some freedom with the tempi in the Arabeske, Op. 18, yet could perhaps take a little more time in the expressive recitative-like moments, but the rippling repeating rhythms have a real flow. The Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 (Carnival Jest from Vienna), is fascinating, with its embedded reference to the Marseillaise, at that time banned in Vienna, and lively dances, rippling textures and central sad Romanze. Again, Schumann’s moods change from moment to moment, yet Papastefanou makes sense of these transitions, making coherent sense of the contrasts. The 3 Romanzen, Op. 28 are darker than one might expect from the title, and a sense of anxiety pervades. The middle Romanze has moments of calm, but the third is jumpy and mercurial. There are a number of shorter pieces filling out this two disc collection, some part of larger collections published later, but here for the year of their composition. They merit their inclusion, however, and the dark smouldering Praeludium from Bunte Blätter, Op. 99 and the delicately dancing Phantasiestück from Albumblätter, Op. 124 are given sensitive readings here. A fascinating collection of lesser-performed works here, and Papastefanou performs throughout with virtuosic command and sensitivity to the constantly changing moods. 


Schumann, R. 2021. Schumann 1839: Year of Piano. Alexandra Papastefanou. Compact Discs (2). First Hand Records. FHR 112.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, April 2021)

Style, vibrancy and vitality from John Wilson and the LSO

John Wilson (conductor)

Streamed Thursday 8 April 2021, 7pm at MarqueeTV
(available free for 7 days, then on demand through subscription)
Recorded 11 March 2021





Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012): Partita

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Valses nobles et sentimentales

George Gershwin (1898-1937), arr. Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981): Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture

John Wilson & the LSO
© London Symphony Orchestra
Bennett:
'A great opening to this concert showcasing Wilson’s tight, detailed approach and the LSO’s commitment to precision and excellence'.

Ravel:
'Wilson and the LSO players relished in the silky textures and surging waves, with delicate precision in the many solo wind passages'.

Gershwin:
'Wilson showed his command, steering the LSO through the frequent mood changes, and handling the contrasting rhythms and tempi shifts without letting the joins show'.

'The Finale was infectiously joyous, with bright brass and fulsome strings. An uplifting conclusion to an evening full of warmth, fun and vitality'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Electric Shostakovich and polished Stravinsky from Andris Nelsons in Boston

Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Streamed online via BSO NOW
from 4pm GMT, Thursday 25 March 2021 





Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Tahiti Trot, Op. 16

Eda Rapoport (1890-1968): Poem, for viola and piano, Op. 14

Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian
Stravinsky:
'The shrill opening woodwind call to attention, answered by warm-toned low chordal brass, set the scene and the angular oboe solo, circling flute and clarinet lines and final mournful chorale were delivered with captivating precision'.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 1:
'Nelsons and the BSO gave us razor sharp precision, and great energy, with some impressive solo work from principal players'.

Shostakovich Tahiti Trot:
'Nelsons and the BSO gave it a pleasingly delicate touch'.

Rapoport:
'An engaging performance of an intriguing miniature'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here

Thursday, 4 March 2021

CD Reviews - March 2021

American composer-pianist Michael Brown takes the title of his latest recording, Noctuelles from the first movement of Maurice Ravel's (1875-1937) Mirrorswhich he performs in full here. It is followed by the Second Improvisation (in variation form), Op. 47 by Russian composer-pianist, Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951).The five movements of Ravel's Miroirs were each dedicated to members of 'Les Apaches', a Parisian artist circle, including painter Paul Sordes and the poet Léon Paul Fargue. It was a line from Fargue that inspired that opening movement, Noctuelles (Night moths), and its shimmering, fluttering textures are mesmerising. Even its slower, more limpid central section, there are slight flutterings, and Brown's dexterity and sensitivity here is striking. In Oiseaux tristes, the rippling textures are more tentative and the atmosphere darker, to which again, Brown is sensitive. Une barque sur l'océan is watery and flowing, and Brown brings out the sea-sick swells and stormier moments as the movement develops. In contrast, Albarado del gracioso is an athletic, energetic dance, and Brown enjoys the jumpy, balletic rhythms, and with its devilish repeated notes and bravura finish, he gives us a virtuosic show, before the mysterious tolling bells and dark clashing harmonies of the final movement, La Vallée des Cloches. Turning to the Medtner, Brown writes about how his research on the piece led to the discovery of two previously unpublished variations, and he adds these here to the fifteen existing variations on the theme, which Medtner calls 'The Song of the Water Nymph', an allusion to Rusalka, Russian folklore's malevolent spirit. He also discovered that Medtner had various orderings for the variations, and so Brown has combined his own take with Medtner's possible orderings to present the set here. The theme is lyrical and watery, yet chromatically ambiguous, this contrast providing the germ for Medtner's variations, from the twisting dark harmonies of Meditation, and the chorale-like and least chromatic Incantation to the shifting harmonic sands of La cadenza, in which the melody is almost hidden amongst perpetual virtuosic activity. Yet there is lightness too, in the sprightly Elves, frisky Gnomes, and chattering Feathered Ones. None of the variations are longer than a couple of minutes or so, and the calmly dark In the Forest, with its overlapping pedalling, and the racing Wood-Goblin are gone in a flash. Brown manages to bring out these contrasting characters, whilst still managing to create a unifying sense of direction, leading to a beautifully contemplative Conclusion, the melody clear and a long-held chord and quiet sombre cadence to finish. Impressive throughout, Brown demonstrates incredible virtuosity, but more than this, great sensitivity to the detail and contrasts within this remarkably evocative music.

Various. 2021. Noctuelles - Ravel, Medtner. Michael Brown. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR78.


The early music ensemble, Musica Poetica, directed by Oliver John Ruthven, took part in the Brighton Early Music Festival BREMF Live! scheme back in 2012. For their debut recording, they present a selection of music by the German composer, Franz Tunder (1614-1667). A new one for me, he was the father-in-law of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), and there is a clear Lutheran line through him to the music of Bach, whilst at the same time elements of Italian influence - he may have studied with Girolamo Frescobaldi. And on their recording, Tunder Appreciated, Musica Poetica indeed add to their selection of works by Tunder pieces by both Frescobaldi and Buxtehude. From Tunder's seventeen extant vocal works, they have chosen here three works for solo voice and viols, and they end their disc with a wonderful choral cantata, Ein feste Burg, Tunder's arrangement of one of Martin Luther's most famous Reformation hymns. Opening with sinuous strings, Tunder creates a wonderful mixture of textures, with choral and solo lines mixed to great effect, and the ensemble achieve just the right balance of choral blend and individuality of line. For the other three Tunder works, three of the five singers on the recording are given a solo outing. First, soprano Lucy Knight performs Tunder's setting of Psalm 137, Am Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon), with a beautifully clear voice, delivering the text with precision over the richly textured accompaniment. Alto Collin Shay brings us Salve mi Jesu, steadily declamatory in tone, and then emphasising Tunder's word-painting of sighing and weeping with great sensitivity, and the stuttering ornamentation is impressively adept. Finally the bass, Christopher Webb gets a turn, in Da mihi Domine, a highlight of the recording for me. Webb's voice is rich yet agile, and he shifts between tender pleading and weighty declamation with ease. This piece also really summed up the musica poetica style (after which the ensemble named themselves), with this declamatory setting of text combined with expressive (and often radical for the time) musical shapes and figurations. Here, the accompaniment also shines through, with rocking melodies passed between instruments, and the two violins echoing the vocal lines beautifully. The two works from Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) are O mors illa, a short but beautiful duet for tenor (Peter Davoren) and bass, beautifully blended here, and accompanied delicately by Toby Carr on theorbo and Ruthven on organ, and Partite sopra Passacagli for solo organ, with its gently lilting introduction, running, winding lines and impressively fluid passacaglia. And the only time when all five singers and the full band come together are for Buxtehude's Ad Latus, from his Membra Jesu Nostri. A meditation on the crucifixion, this glorious work is full of invention and rich detail, and the dancing string introduction here has a real spark. The blend of the five voices is initially not always even, with a couple of voices dominating, although when the opening music returns, the balance seems to have settled. In the central sections, the touch is light, and one is left eager to hear their performance of the complete work. So, impressive performances here, and a great introduction to Tunder, of whom I hope to hear more.


Various. 2018. Tunder Appreciated. Musica Poetica, Oliver John Ruthven. Veterum Musica VM020.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, March 2021)

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Light at the end of the tunnel from Elena Urioste and Aurora principals at Kings Place

Aurora Orchestra - Principal Players
inc.
Ruth Gibson (viola)

Tom Service (presenter)

Streamed live online 7pm, Friday 26 February 2021

Kings Place, London


Thea Musgrave (b.1928): Light at the End of the Tunnel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Introduction and Allegro

Anna Meredith (b.1978): Music for Ravens

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) (arr. Iain Farrignton (b.1977)): The Lark Ascending

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Octet in E flat major, Op. 20

Sally Pryce
© Nick Rutter
Musgrave:
'Strikingly moving, and Aurora violist Ruth Gibson commanded the empty stage, a resonant cry of anguish contrasting with the glassy harmonics in this fleeting miniature'.

Ravel: 
'Harpist Sally Pryce was impressive in the extensive solo passages, the close microphones allowing her to contrast dramatic sweeps with extreme delicacy and pianissimo detail'.

Meredith:
'The Aurora players’ intensity and command of the complexity was impressive'.

Vaughan Williams:
'Urioste’s solo was sweet, effortless and relaxed, with breathy tone at the start of the solo passage in the lower registers, gradually warming up as the lark rises higher and higher, with a naturalistic rhythmic flexibility'.

Members of the Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Mendelssohn:
'Their performance was full of exhilarating life and energy ... The finale was a masterclass in joyous performance, with constant communication and clear delight'.

Read my full review on Backtrack here.